Fire forecasters: 2013 should be better than 2012
Timely moisture-bearing storms lower risk of catastrophic wildfires
What a difference a few strong, advantageously timed weather systems can make.
With fresh memories of 2012—one of the most active wildfire seasons this region has seen in recent years—officials earlier this year were preparing for the worst, warning of the possibility of a repeat cycle this time around.
But major precipitation events in April, and cool, wet weather to begin May, have local wildfire watchers more optimistic looking ahead to the 2013 wildfire season.
“We’re probably on time for fire season,” said Russ Long, the fire management officer for the West Zone of the Upper Colorado River Fire Management Unit. “But it’s not like last year, by any means. Last year, we were just so dry.”
The regional wildfire season is traditionally between June and September.
Fire officials across the region rely on seasonal forecasts and detailed analysis from the Predictive Services arm of the interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. Their latest report reflects a similar line of thinking for western Colorado.
“Wet and cool springs do not eliminate the large fire risk of subsequent fire seasons, however a repeat of 2012 conditions is unlikely,” their latest outlook reports.
But as Long explains, just the nature of the high desert climate means wildfire danger is always a possibility, despite recent moisture events.
“Right now, we’re coming out of a dry period, we’re coming into green-up, everything is leafing out, the juices are flowing in the bushes—and then all of a sudden it will just dry out, and the fuel moisture will drop,” Long said.
“You know how western Colorado is—this place dries out almost overnight,” he said. “We’re just always inherently dry, so even on a wet year, we’re still busy here.”
That was especially true last year, when drought conditions were exacerbated by continued lack of moisture and hot temperatures through much of the summer. The Pine Ridge Fire burned more than 13,000 acres near De Beque, but Long says the region was fortunate the fire season wasn’t worse.
“We really got lucky. We just didn’t have the lightning and the ignitions, and the public was really careful. They did a really good job of preventing wildfires last year,” he said.
While a long-term regional drought still persists, it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation between drought and wildfire, Long said.
Predictive Services echoes that sentiment in their latest outlook: “Drought, in general, is not a very good predictor for fire season severity.”
But they do point out a marked difference between this year and last in terms of snowpack for Colorado. Where last year much of the state was at about 20 percent of average snowpack the first week of May, this year only the southwest corner of the state has snowpack levels even close to those diminished amounts.
While Long says his group has all the resources it needs for the upcoming fire season, there are other pressures perhaps not felt in seasons past.
“It’s no secret that the government is broke,” said Long, who’s technically an employee of the federal Bureau of Land Management. “We’re in a position now to keep costs down. That’s a high priority.”
That will be one of a number of factors in determining which fires they choose to fight this upcoming fire season.
“We’re looking at everything from the risk management standpoint, the cost standpoint, the safety standpoint, values of risk—all of those things are considered on every fire,” he said.
A direct result of the budget pressures is in the number of seasonal employees hired for fire season. Long said they’ve hired a few less this year—the West Zone last year had seven or eight seasonal employees—but they’ve shifted and trained other staff to keep engines fully staffed.
Katie Stevens, the BLM’s new Grand Junction field manager, addressed the topic at a meeting earlier this year.
“When we have fewer seasonals and smaller fire crews, we have to be thinking about risk a little bit differently and making sure we’re not putting them in places where value is at risk,” she said.
“We’re going to be looking very seriously at managing (every fire) for multiple objectives, forest benefits and doing a very wide confine and contain strategy,” she said.